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The Robin Hood of the East Bay
Gordy Slack | January 18, 2008
For years, waiters at the finest restaurants fought to tend to her table, boutique owners' eyes lit up when they saw her coming, and friends enjoyed the lavish gifts and trips she showered on them. But after federal investigators accused her of funding her famous generosity through one of the most audacious embezzlements in local history-a crime that netted her more than $11 million-her exclusive coterie of admirers suddenly faced a disturbing question: Why hadn't $11 million-her exclusive coterie of admirers suddenly faced a disturbing question: Why hadn't they seen the real Carol Huang?
If ever a wedding was for the mother of the bride, it was this one. In 1998, Carol Ann Huang spent a fortune to make it perfect. Her second daughter, Christine, was marrying well. Her mother’s dream come true, Christine was elegant, smart, and destined to be rich.
The bride was stunning in her custom-designed ballerina-length gown cut from a hand-embroidered cotton organdy. She wouldn’t have to rely on her law degree from Boalt Hall for her income for long: she was marrying Benoit Dauchez, the heir of a well-established French banking family. Carol Huang’s new son-in-law was not only affluent, he was handsome, cultured, and charming, too.
The wedding’s theme was the meeting of France and China. Held at the sprawling Beaulieu Garden in Napa Valley, the event was by all accounts extravagant. Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers performed, and the handmade napkins were embroidered for the occasion with images of pomegranates. Real dried butterflies and beetles were embedded into the luscious flower arrangements. Lemon trees had been carted in and a huge stage constructed, and East Indian tents had been set up around the estate to shield guests from the sun.
Christine’s gown had been made by Mark Rex, a top San Francisco designer who flew to New York to fit Christine several times. Deborah Starks-Baird, owner of Soirée, a bridal boutique on College Avenue in Oakland, was flown to Paris to pick up the fabric. Huang told her, “I want Christine to have the best. If you have to go to Europe to get it, go ahead.” And though Starks-Baird’s seamstress didn’t end up making the dress, Huang paid her for it anyway.
Huang had an unerring eye for things of beauty and a passion for surrounding herself with them. “It was one of the most beautiful weddings I’ve ever attended,” says Jim Avila, image and style consultant to the elite, who counts Hillary Clinton and Queen Noor of Jordan among his former clients. And Avila has seen hundreds of weddings. “It wasn’t the size or extravagance of the event that was so remarkable. It was that everything was so exquisitely tasteful, so artful. It wasn’t garish or over the top at all. There will never be another like it.”
Every one of the guests at this affair, including Huang’s boss Edward Scarff, the dapper, 66-year-old former president and COO of multibillion-dollar life insurance company Transamerica, felt indebted to Huang in one way or another. To Scarff she had given two decades of service as his bookkeeper, but also extravagant gifts like the large topiaries planted in fine Chinese vases she surprised him with one Christmas. She’d given others a trip to Europe, a pashmina shawl, or a string of pearls, or she’d had her driver deliver an expensive piece of furniture to their home. Yet few but Scarff knew what Huang did for a living, and no one knew where her seemingly endless supply of money came from. It’s safe to say, though, that most guests spent some part of that day wondering. For years, the source of Huang’s mysterious wealth had been one of the most buzzed-about subjects among those on or close to “Carol’s list.”
Mardi Mertens, a friend of Huang’s and her former neighbor in the Berkeley hills, says, “We just assumed Carol’s money came from another world.”
Even Huang’s closest friends and family didn’t know its source. There were clues; for example, she had told her friends Murray Rosen and Elaine Yourick that her father and his brother had patented the original technique for extracting citronella, an ingredient used in making perfume. Perhaps the roots of her wealth grew from that, they speculated. Others thought that maybe her husband had been an industrialist, or that she had descended from some imperial family that had sneaked its jewels out of China before the Communists’ silk curtain descended, or that her gains came from espionage or even the Chinese Mafia. She’d told one friend that she bought and sold other businesses, and in the late 1990s, the height of the IPO fever, that seemed plausible enough. It is remarkable, now that her crimes have been revealed, that so few of those who knew her well asked. Perhaps they thought it impolite. Or maybe it was a reluctance to mess with the magic; wherever the bounty was coming from, she was spending lots of it on them.
It was not until Christine’s wedding that Rosen and Yourick really began to question her legitimacy. It wasn’t the expense that prompted their suspicions, however; it was the members of Huang’s family at the wedding.
“Some were in the import-export business; one of them might have been a teacher,” says Rosen. “But they were totally different than Carol. They were modest.” He doesn’t mean modest in demeanor. He means not at all rich. Huang’s family seemed shocked by how grand and elaborate the wedding was. “Their jaws just dropped,” says Rosen. “I realized then that this wasn’t family money. It was coming from somewhere else. There was no other real explanation.”
It’s hard to say whether Scarff, Huang’s boss, reached the same conclusion that day. But as he wandered the estate surveying the extraordinary reception for Christine’s wedding, he, too, had to wonder how his bookkeeper had been able to swing it.
It was not until years later that Scarff discovered who had paid for Christine’s extravaganza.
He had. Scarff had paid for it all.
Though it received scant coverage, Carol Huang’s arrest in 2003 knocked the wind out of one of the East Bay’s most intriguing subcultures. For 10 years, the community of aesthetes, artists, craftspeople, and their patrons at places like Oliveto, Chez Panisse, and Tail of the Yak had been in Huang’s thrall. She was a local legend: seemingly self-effacing and yet as flamboyantly generous a person as anyone had ever met. But it had all come crashing down. Instead of a kindhearted heiress with superb taste, she turned out to be the perpetrator of one of the most audacious embezzlements in local history, having stolen more than $11 million from her boss—conceivably much more—to fund her giving to folks in Oakland and Berkeley. Talk about a buzz kill.
“We joked that the reason the economy tanked in the Bay Area had less to do with the dot-com bust than with Carol Huang’s disappearance,” says Elaine Smith, once a salesclerk at Tail of the Yak.
After her arrest for mail fraud and money laundering—charges related to the embezzlement—I spoke with dozens of people who knew Huang in an effort to learn what drove her giving and taking, and why those close to her didn’t detect that something was profoundly wrong. How did the East Bay’s bohemian culture play into Huang’s charade? After all, Berkeley and Oakland have long pretended not to bow to capital’s pull. Yet Huang’s affluence and generosity created powerful, sometimes character-warping gravitational fields there, both for her and, apparently, for those she showered with gifts. And while some might pooh-pooh the wealthy and their consumerism, they couldn’t turn down an invitation to a multithousand-dollar evening when Huang offered them one.
I also became fascinated by the mystery of Huang’s life story, much of which I had to piece together from court records and other legal documents. In the end, though, this extraordinary tale reveals much about the psyche of the East Bay as well as of Huang.
Huang’s psyche proved to be the more elusive of the two. In court, her defense team portrayed her as a victim of mental illness, while the federal prosecutor painted her as an incorrigible con woman, but neither simplistic picture seemed to square with the woman people knew. “Carol has an inward quality,” says Rosen. “She is demure, quiet, and self-deprecating.” A solid woman with a broad, placid face, Huang was uncomfortable in the limelight, even as the mother of the bride. She carefully guarded the details of her life in the best of times. Despite many letters and calls and e-mails pleading for interviews, I have been unable to talk to Huang, her daughters, or anyone else in her family. Her lawyer, Gil Eisenberg, will not comment on her case. And only a few brave sources were willing to go on the record in discussing Huang; most would speak with me only if guaranteed anonymity. But what people told me in two years of reporting this story revealed at least one thing with stark clarity: as modest as she seemed, Carol Huang saw to it, through the overwhelming generosity that defined her, that wherever she stood, all compass needles pointed her way, all troops stood at attention.
A big tip or a tasteful gift seemed to be her point of entry into the East Bay’s community of aesthetes. Huang overpaid extravagantly wherever she went. A favorite customer at Chez Panisse, the sanctum sanctorum of Berkeley’s empire of taste, Huang regularly left hundreds of dollars in tips. Chez Panisse is famous as a restaurant with egalitarian values, where celebrities and common folk get equal access to good tables and great food. Yet according to Lee Ann Phillips, a former maître d’ there, the normally unflappable waiters would jockey for the chance to serve Huang. “We loved her,” Phillips says. “They call her ‘Berkeley’s Robin Hood.’ You have no idea how much she did for people, how many lives she changed.”
Alan Treister, a bartender at the wedding reception for Huang’s oldest daughter, Amy—held at the James Leary Flood Mansion in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights—had never even met Huang or Amy, but he got a $400 tip, the largest of his catering career.
For Treister, who is an artist, that tip made a significant difference. And there must have been 30 people working with him that night, all of whom also got big checks, and many of whom were artists. Each received enough for maybe half a month’s rent from Huang.
Another Berkeley artist, who went on at least two excursions hosted by Huang, says new doors were opened to her, and she was exposed to worlds she might never have experienced otherwise.
Huang’s generosity could also lead to squabbling. One night several years ago, Huang had a Chinese New Year party for more than 50 people at Oliveto, the celebrated Italian restaurant in north Oakland. The tab was probably a little more than $6,000, says Bob Klein, a co-owner of the restaurant, and Huang knew a service charge would be added onto that as part of the bill. That charge, explains Klein, would typically be divided among the bussers, waiters, and others on the staff. Of course Huang paid it happily, but then also wanted to give large checks—between $800 and $1,000 each—to specific employees, including three waiters and several people working in the kitchen. But it was customary at Oliveto for waiters to share a percentage of tips with other service staff. Huang’s selective generosity threw a wrench into the system, and Klein had to scramble in order to try to even things up among a disgruntled staff. “It was all very emotional,” he says. And feelings never were entirely smoothed out. One waiter resigned shortly after the episode.
An independent jewelry designer who sold work to Huang received, among other gifts, a $5,000 gift certificate as a wedding present. And even aside from such boons, Huang’s business was a gift in itself. One night the designer was meeting Huang to deliver an expensive commissioned piece. “I was wearing another piece, equally valuable,” says the artist. Huang liked it so much she commissioned another one just like it, spending around $50,000 on the two pieces.
Unlike some compulsive buyers, who purchase whatever they can get their hands on, Huang was exceedingly choosy. In an era defined by technomania, she was drawn to a kind of 19th-century aesthetic. Tail of the Yak in Berkeley, one of her staple stops, looks more like a small museum or cabinet of curiosities than a retail space. The price tags are handmade and written in calligraphy; the shop has no website and is proud of it. Employees there, many of whom are artists, seem as happy to sell a small spool of European ribbon or a Mexican postcard as a diamond ring.
“Carol bought an enormous amount of jewelry there,” Rosen says. Yourick, his wife, who used to work at Tail of the Yak, would help Huang choose the pieces. “She’d spend $10,000, $12,000, $13,000. And she didn’t just do it once or twice. She did it regularly.”
While individual artists and businesses such as the San Francisco boutique Bell’occhio, the Union Square restaurant Campton Place, and Chez Panisse sold thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of merchandise or services to Huang, others received lavish gifts for nothing but their companionship in return.
Huang’s neighbors in the Berkeley hills, for instance. Huang frequently took Mertens and her husband to Chez Panisse and Oliveto and to shows, including Cirque du Soleil, Mertens says. “She was a fountain of giving. Giving was like a full-time job for her. But she’d never let us take her out or give her anything back.”
Huang’s friends Rosen and Yourick had similar experiences. She insisted on treating them to dinner or breakfast often, to concerts, and even to elaborate and expensive vacations. “By the time I was in the picture,” Rosen says, “there really was no need for Carol to pay for everything. But she refused ever to allow anyone to reciprocate or pick up the tab.”
One time Huang treated her daughters, Rosen, and Yourick to a long weekend at the Château du Sureau, an ultraluxe place nestled just outside the boundaries of Yosemite National Park. She rented all 10 rooms—at a cost of about $10,000 per day. “They shined our shoes each night,” says Rosen. “It was just a fantasy.”
But on a trip to Santa Barbara, when Rosen, Yourick, and Huang stayed at the San Ysidro Ranch, where John and Jacqueline Kennedy had honeymooned, Rosen got his first inkling that Huang was more complex and less placid than she seemed. It was during Christine’s engagement to Dauchez, and Huang was expecting her future son-in-law to take charge by ordering the dinner wine. They had reserved a private room at what must have been an exorbitant price. Unfortunately, the aristocratic Frenchman didn’t yet know California wines, and Rosen, who was sitting near him, offered to help him choose. “Carol flashed me a look that I will never forget,” Rosen says. “Her eyes turned to ice. I knew then that there was a cold and controlling side to her.”
Huang spent freely on herself as well, but never for anything ostentatious; her choices were always tasteful. “She is understated,” says Avila, who has made a career out of cultivating his own and others’ taste and style. “She was the most dignified, private, sophisticated woman. She did not boast in any way, shape, or form.” She’d pay $10,000 for a custom-tailored suit that appeared modest and practical. Her shoes were of the highest quality, but few would recognize how expensive they were.
Huang could leave one of her favorite shops and walk down Oakland’s College Avenue toward Alexander Pope, her preferred hair salon, with $10,000 worth of clothing on her back, a $300 pair of shoes on her feet, and $15,000 worth of jewelry in her bag, and look pretty much like everyone else. Her driver, known as Papu, drove her around in a plain car, though he apparently could have afforded something showier. An attorney who has seen the FBI documents told me that Huang had given Papu approximately $500,000 over the years.
She gave members of her family overseas large sums as well: more than $100,000 to nephews and nieces in Taiwan and more than $100,000 to her parents.
While many details remain sketchy, here’s what I’ve been able to piece together about Huang’s past. She was born to a privileged Shanghai family on September 15, 1942. Her father, a businessman, became depressed and one day, at age 45, disappeared into his room, where he remained sequestered for years. He emerged to flee the country with his wife when the Communists took over in 1949. Huang, then 7 years old, was left behind in the care of relatives. A decade later, as a teenager, Huang followed her parents’ escape route to Hong Kong. This was during China’s next big upheaval, the Great Leap Forward. According to her defense team, on the train from Shanghai en route to Hong Kong, a guard attempted to attack her, an event her defense would say played a significant part in the story to come.
Fast-forward to the 1960s. Huang arrived in the United States in 1964 and within a few years was going to graduate school and was unhappily married to a chemical engineer named Warren Hwa-Nan Huang. She was working for the San Francisco publisher Holden-Day and raising her two daughters. In the 1970s her marriage fell apart, and in divorce files she alleged that her husband had physically abused her. Shortly after their breakup, Warren Huang went back to Taiwan.
By the late 1970s, Huang was working for Scarff. When he and his friend Jerre Sears started their own business, Scarff, Sears & Associates, which bought and sold other businesses, they hired Huang to take care of the books. At its largest, there were 10 to 15 people working for the company. Huang was diligent, smart, and seemingly reliable. She did such a seamless job that Scarff asked her to keep the books for his family trust and his personal finances as well. A fatal vote of confidence, as it turns out.
By the time Huang became a gift-giving legend, she and her daughters had moved to a little house in the Berkeley hills. From the outside, neighbors say, everything looked just fine. But inside that bungalow, a transformation was taking place. Huang was preparing a scheme that would, in terms of the cold hard cash involved, make Martha Stewart look like Little Bo Peep.
In September 2002, Scarff was just beginning to enjoy his retirement when he started getting calls from bankers seeking Huang and noticed things had started going “hinky” with his accounts, says his bankruptcy attorney. He got a call from a bank asking whether he had developed a plan for the repayment of a loan he had no idea he’d even taken out. Then he discovered that he had supposedly borrowed $2 million on his house in the Los Altos hills and had cashed in his own life-insurance policy for $1 million.
He tried to reach Huang to see what was up, but she was in Taiwan, having left a note indicating that she was taking a vacation. What on earth was going on? Then it came to him. At that moment, his world turned upside down.
He eventually learned that over a decade, Huang had stolen more than $11 million from him. He had financed the education of her daughters, including college and graduate school, and their weddings, and Huang’s almost nightly dinners at some of the Bay Area’s most expensive restaurants. He had supported Huang’s parents in Asia, and he had financed a Bay Area artisan support program to rival the WPA.
Every victim of embezzlement must share this same queasy feeling of freefall, but Scarff’s fleecing was on a far grander scale than most. Phil Gregory, one of Scarff’s lawyers, now estimates the cost to Scarff, including money stolen, lost interest, and lawyers’ fees, at about $30 million. Scarff and Gregory refuse to say whether Scarff has anything left, but in addition to suing the banks that loaned Huang money under his name, Scarff also filed for bankruptcy.
Of Huang’s $11 million-plus embezzlement, former IRS special agent Mark Lessler says, “In over 24 years as a criminal investigator in Northern California, it is one of the most significant dollar amounts I’ve seen in this type of crime.”
And the truth is, no one knows just how much money Huang stole. The FBI and IRS only investigated the crime and traced her spending back to 1996; before that, the statute of limitations would have kept them from prosecuting her. But Gregory says she’d been stealing for five years by then.
Huang’s MO was deceptively simple. Because she had access to both Scarff’s personal and business accounts, she was able to leverage them against each other. First, starting in 1991, she talked an employee at the Reno payroll agency used by Scarff, Sears, into overpaying her by as much as $100,000 every month. She repaid the payroll agency, but with money she took out of Scarff’s personal account or borrowed in his name and moved through a corporate holding entity called Northcliff. In addition to bestowing gifts such as jewelry, cases of wine, and expensive handbags on personnel at the banks, she also sent monetary gifts—usually about $700 a month—to her contact at the payroll company. After several years, when she had run through Scarff’s cash, she somehow convinced him to open lines of credit amounting to $3.5 million, even though he had no plans to use them. She started borrowing money on those accounts, and when she had maxed them out, she extended the lines of credit even further, forging Scarff’s signature to do so. For a long time, Scarff’s team charges, the banks were more than happy to go along.
The real scandal here, the real story, says Scarff, is the irresponsibility on the part of the banks. They are just too willing to grant loans to affluent people. So willing, he says, that they overlook their own security policies. By routinely forging Scarff’s signature, and by greasing the right palms with tasteful gifts, Huang was able to keep this scheme going and to borrow as much as she wanted for quite a while. When one big loan needed paying off, she’d take out others to cover it. She paid for those with yet others. Because she had all the bank statements sent to her, and because Scarff never asked to look at them, and because the banks never checked directly with Scarff, she was able to keep the giant and ever-deepening pit of debt in Scarff’s backyard secret from him for over a decade. Until, that is, his house started to slide right into the hole.
You can borrow money for only so long, even under a former Transamerica COO’s name. And in the summer of 2002, when Scarff’s revolving lines of credit gave out, Huang disappeared during the night, according to a former neighbor, and fled to Asia.
Once in Asia, beyond the reach of U.S. law, Huang took an overdose of drugs. She was taken to a hospital in Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, FBI and IRS agents had begun their investigations. The FBI asked Huang’s daughters to persuade her to come home, and home she came. She was arrested for mail fraud and money laundering on June 30, 2003. Christine, then living in New York City, came up with the $200,000 bail bond and Huang was released on her own recognizance. Lessler says she was considered a low flight risk because she had voluntarily returned from Asia.
Huang cooperated fully with authorities, later pleading guilty to both charges. She spent days with IRS and FBI agents helping account for the money she’d stolen.
When word of Huang’s arrest spread, a hush of disbelief moved over her community of friends and acquaintances. Everyone knew Huang was a compulsive giver, but no one would have guessed she was equally addicted to stealing. It was like discovering that Albert Schweitzer, while doctoring the poor in Africa, was snuffing patients on the side. But when the truth sunk in, a roar of gossip quickly ensued. For some, the fact that Huang stole the money from a banker and financier made the crime a revolutionary act. Others, when they found out what she’d done, dropped her like a hot potato. Still others were frankly curious. No one I interviewed in her entourage had been invited to see her house, but when it was put up for sale, one of Huang’s former beneficiaries went to see the bungalow in the Berkeley hills and said she found it “laughably small.”
Huang moved into an apartment in north Berkeley. She continued eating at nearby Chez Panisse, where she was regarded as a kind of fallen hero, but she went there less frequently and left smaller tips. Her entourage had divided into camps: those who felt sorry for her, those who were angry with her, and those who weren’t sure how to feel but knew they didn’t want to be seen as co-conspirators in one of the biggest embezzlements California has ever seen. No one that I know of from any of the camps sought her out to get an explanation or to provide comfort. Good taste somehow did not suggest an approach to this situation.
Some say now that they’d suspected Huang before her arrest. “My husband once joked, ‘I bet this is all embezzled money,’ ” says one former friend.
Elaine Smith, who says she never received any gifts from Huang, says that she always thought Huang’s giving was “a little creepy. I worked at shops in Pacific Heights, and I never saw any of those rich people spend money like Carol did. People with real money do not spend it like that.”
Others still insist there had been no reason to doubt Huang. “Why should we have thought something was wrong?” asks an artist who was close to Huang. “I like to think that if I had a lot of money, I would give it away, too. There is something wrong that we assume someone who’s that generous must be crazy or corrupt.
“It did seem too good to be true,” she admits. “But I kept telling myself that there’s nothing wrong with accepting things from someone clearly so happy to give them.” Huang was so gracious and unpretentious that it was easy for most of those on the receiving end to conclude that wherever her money came from, it couldn’t be anything immoral or illegal.
And some still have good memories. “Carol was one of my favorite people,” says Elaine Bell, the caterer for Christine’s wedding. “She was a lovely, lovely person.”
Starks-Baird, the owner of Soirée, is one who still sympathizes with Huang. Like Huang, she is an aesthete, although she thinks society brainwashes people to buy far more than they need. Starks-Baird says she “just can’t see what Huang did in black-and-white terms.”
“We’ve all gotten caught up in compulsive buying,” says Starks-Baird, who is in her mid-50s, wears vintage clothes, and has purplish hennaed hair. “Society pushes on us the need to look the right way, to do the right thing. Credit cards are pushed on us. The society of men in some way actually wants us to be in debtors’ prison. People who overspend like that are filling a bottomless hole constantly dug out by advertising, television, and the insecurity they promote.”
Even the FBI agent on the case, Jennifer Murphy, had empathy for Huang. She refused to discuss the investigation with me, but not because FBI procedures forbade it. “Agent Murphy feels so sorry for Carol, she doesn’t want to contribute to her suffering,” says Special Agent LaRae Quy, the FBI’s media coordinator. It is yet another testament to the power of Huang’s pathos—or her ability to manipulate the truth.
Avila, who clearly admires Huang’s commitment to good taste, refused to judge Huang’s legal transgressions when we spoke, though he did say that it must have been hard for such a dignified woman to “lose face” in the eyes of her friends and family. When I asked him about her crimes, he just repeated that she was, well, just so discerning and elegant. Of course, it may have helped that she paid Avila twice for every job he did. “She’d be going out to a concert and would come over to the city to have me do her makeup, which usually costs $250, and she would write me a check for $500. If I did a bigger job for her and billed her for $2,500, she’d pay me $5,000. It was not so much as to make you feel like there was something wrong,” he added. “It was just extraordinarily generous. I thought to myself when it was all over, God, I want another client like this.”
Avila was not alone.
“There should be a TV serial called Touched by an Embezzler,” says one former salesperson. “That’s how many lives she altered.”
There are various reasons for people’s reluctance to talk on the record about Huang, some noble and some less so. Some don’t want to cause Huang, who gave them so much, more suffering. Some feel a kind of survivor’s guilt. For a decade, dozens on Huang’s list benefited from her largesse. While some still have their gifts, Huang is presumably broke and definitely in prison. They got the stuff, she paid the price (along with, of course, Scarff and his family, the banks, and the courts, which have spent hundreds of thousands or millions on a welter of related legal cases). For people of conscience, that’s hard to acknowledge.
Though not all admit it, I believe nearly everyone touched by Huang’s story feels a measure of embarrassment or shame mixed in with whatever else she left them with. Certainly Scarff must be ashamed; the financial success he achieved in decades of moneymaking will be forever eclipsed by this thorough drubbing conducted right beneath his nose.
The designer who received a $5,000 gift from Huang and tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of business said she still feels grateful, but the fact that the money Huang spent belonged to someone else doesn’t sit well with her. And that is so for many of Huang’s beneficiaries, although there was a nearly universal silence on the question of whether to return their gifts or cash. Because so many were artists of modest means working as store clerks or waiters, in some cases the money is long gone. And at this point, given that Scarff and the banks are engaged in various lawsuits, it’s not at all clear to whom returns should be made.
For business owners, too, there is an understandable reluctance to go on record about the personal lives of their customers, even if those customers are convicted felons. And many feel the same embarrassment her friends do. What can you say when you’ve been caught dancing around a fire drinking and laughing while burning someone else’s money—especially when it turns out to have been stolen? You slink back to your tent and say as little as you possibly can.
Then there is the guilt those who simply exploited Huang’s openhandedness must feel. “ ‘Let’s go to L.A.,’ someone would say,” recalls a former insider, “knowing full well Carol would always take such bait and offer to pay for a trip. Or they would show her pictures of things they liked—furniture, whatever—in a catalog, knowing that she would have it delivered.”
One trip, to visit Los Angeles art museums, included putting 20 guests up for a long weekend in a ritzy hotel, renting cars for all, and treating everyone to three squares a day of top L.A. fare. Those who encouraged her must now wonder if they weren’t somehow exploiting her vulnerability to their own advantage. I sensed this not so much in what they told me, but in the extreme discomfort they showed when discussing the benefits they got from their relationship with Huang.
Many on Huang’s list are nervous, too, that someone—the IRS, Scarff’s family, his attorneys—will come after them. In the months after word of Huang’s arrest got out, a lot of her former fans got stiff necks from looking over their shoulders.
Like most of her friends, Rosen and Yourick were flabbergasted when they found out that Huang had been lying to them and that the money she’d lavished on them was stolen. But unlike many others, who were just surprised or amused, they were furious and hurt. “We felt like dishrags being tossed out,” says Rosen.
“Virtually every conversation and all the time we had spent with her was put into a different framework after we found out,” Rosen says. “We don’t know what was real and what wasn’t. As far as I know, the whole relationship was a lie. You have no idea how hurtful the betrayal was.”
When I mention that the waiters at Chez Panisse called Huang “Berkeley’s Robin Hood,” Rosen bristles. “She was no kind of Robin Hood,” he says. “If she’d been giving money to charity, or to someone who’d suffered a misfortune, that would be something else. Elaine and I were both gainfully employed. She wasn’t rescuing us. She was using us somehow.”
“It made me kind of sick, the effect she had on people. It was ugly,” says Elaine Smith, who resented the way otherwise dignified people responded to Huang and jockeyed to get on her list. “It’s not as if she was saving lives. She was plugging in to the most chichi goddamn stuff. It gives me the creeps.”
“I think that she is a con artist of the highest order,” says Rosen. “I don’t understand the sympathy people have for her.”
The FBI confirms that Huang gave no money to charities. And yet, Huang did practice her own form of charity at times. For example, at her sentencing, the defense attorney mentioned that she had given an $8,000 check to a waitress who was a single mother.
The obvious question is, What drove Huang? Was it an almost biological compulsion to give? An effort to buy love and respect? Maybe she fully intended to pay for the first gifts she gave, but when that affection and awe from others hit her bloodstream like cocaine, there was no turning back.
On the other hand, maybe all of the psychological speculation about what drove Huang’s compulsive giving misses the point. It’s possible that Huang wasn’t buying to give—maybe she was giving just to make room for more compulsive buying. Although her Berkeley bungalow appeared unremarkable from the outside, it was extraordinary in at least one way: it was so full of unopened packages from Tail of the Yak, Bell’occhio, the now-closed Yasmine, and other high-end boutiques that it was hard to move from one room to another. At least one room was filled from floor to ceiling with bags and boxes holding hats, clothing, shawls, and jewelry.
Still, the friends and acquaintances I interviewed never noticed any hint of neurosis or mood disorder in her, other than her extraordinary spending. In fact, many commented on her equanimity. And no professional spy could have kept a cooler cover for a scheme so meticulously calculated and executed for at least a decade.
Perhaps Huang was motivated by a longing to give her daughters the advantages she had lost as a child back in China. She certainly succeeded in launching Christine and Amy on social and economic trajectories that her own single-parent income never could have borne. The money ran dry only after her children were thoroughly educated, married, and on their own paths, and after her parents were near the end of their lives. Did she time that consciously?
In an effort to minimize her sentence, Huang’s attorney brought her therapists to court. Karen Froming, a neuropsychologist from UCSF, and George Woods, a neuropsychiatrist who testified for the defense in the famous Polly Klaas case, had begun treating Huang after her return from Asia. They diagnosed bipolar disorder, also called manic depression.
The roots of Huang’s mental illness probably go back to her childhood, Froming said in court, and her parents’ abandonment planted the seed for her desperate need to be loved. The attack on the train seems to have prompted Huang’s first dissociation, her defense team said. To protect herself, Huang effectively isolated and cut off the intolerable aspects of that experience.
Huang’s bipolar disorder went untreated, said Woods and Froming, partly because mental illness is not normally discussed in the Chinese culture, and partly because it didn’t become disabling (or enabling, depending on how you look at it) until the late 1980s or early 1990s, when apparently unrelated events coincided to trigger her decade-long stealing and spending spree.
First, one of Huang’s daughters, then about 20, allegedly suffered an assault. According to Woods’s testimony, Huang’s daughters had also previously been molested, by “someone who they all loved very, very much” (not Huang’s husband), after Carol’s marriage had broken up. I’ve been unable to uncover any further details about this assault except that it was soon followed by another “trigger”: the granting from Scarff to Huang of between $400,000 and $500,000. That’s right, nearly half a million dollars. And this for someone who never made more than $75,000 a year in salary. Phil Gregory, Scarff’s lawyer, said that the money was given as a one-time bonus in lieu of a retirement package. Asked if anyone else working for Scarff got such a windfall, Gregory replied, “I don’t know.” Asked if the half-million-dollar bonus reflected any special status, accomplishment, or need of Huang’s, Gregory said, “That is just the generous nature of Ed Scarff.”
Did she spend her whole bonus before beginning to steal from Scarff? It’s unclear, but sometime around 1991 she began to feed her addiction with Scarff’s fortune. Her buying was a biological need, a compulsion, a kind of self-medication, said Froming.
The half-million-dollar windfall appears to have knocked Huang out of her orbit. She’d been depressed, both by her daughter’s attack and possibly the onset of menopause, too, said her therapists, and suddenly she had access to a powerful, though short-lasting, anti-depressant: purchase power. Oniomania, or compulsive shopping, is a serious disorder, and Huang had a bad case, according to Froming. Apparently, Huang was hooked from the first hit.
Adding all that money to Huang’s modest life was like pouring gasoline on a flame. Rather than invest the windfall or save it for retirement, she underwent a superhero-like transformation, into, ta-da! Carol Huang, the Robin Hood of Berkeley.
Over a period of 15 years, according to Woods, Huang suffered from a “full-blown manic disorder” off and on; he also said that a person can experience mania and depression simultaneously.
The federal prosecutor, Shawna Yen, a tough Asian American woman, said that there was little corroborating evidence of the attack on the train or of any of Huang’s family history. “I actually contest whether Carol Huang had any kind of mental impairment,” Yen told the court flatly. Judge Jeremy Fogel, however, stated, “I’m satisfied that Ms. Huang does suffer from bipolar disorder and did at the time that she committed the acts.”
In mid-2003, Scarff’s lawyers, realizing that they weren’t likely to get any money back from Huang or the people she’d given it to, went after the banks that had helped her by granting illegitimately authorized loans. Scarff also declared bankruptcy, to protect himself from the debts Huang had incurred under his name. With these complex civil cases pending, nearly three years passed between Huang’s guilty plea and her sentencing. Some of the civil cases should be over by early fall, according to Gregory.
Huang says she wants to face the consequences of her crime and to repay society. In a teary courtroom statement on May 10 of this year, she apologized to a stone-faced Scarff, saying that she had never planned to commit this crime, that she had nothing but respect and admiration for his devotion to his family, that he had always been kind, fair, and decent, and that when she got out of prison she would do whatever she could do to pay him back.
Also on May 10, Huang was sentenced by Judge Fogel to two six-and-a-half-year terms, one for mail fraud and the other for money laundering, to be served concurrently. The judge acknowledged at a July 26 hearing, “Unless Ms. Huang wins the lottery I don’t think there is any likelihood that she is going to be able to pay restitution anytime in the future,” but he ordered her to pay the court $11,689,301 to hold for restitution nonetheless. She is supposed to have begun paying $25 per month while in prison. At that rate, she should be settled up in about 39,000 years. On August 1, she checked into the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, a low-security prison 24 miles southeast of Oakland. When released, she will be about 70.
Is Huang a vulnerable political refugee who survived terrible abuse and trauma, worked hard, and was true to her family but fell victim to a mental illness that drove her to steal compulsively and give away millions of dollars? Is she a Robin Hood, as some say, who converted a capacity to deceive into the progressive act of taking money from the rich and giving it to the (relatively) poor? Or is the truth more sinister? If she could lie so well during the years of her alleged manic disorder, who is to say that she is not lying still—lying about her lies and about her illness itself? Who can say that in six and a half years, when she emerges from prison, she will not consider this all a hard but high-paying job well done? In the light of that possibility, even her traumas become suspect, potential material for her own legal and financial self-aggrandizement.
After two years of reporting, Huang remains a deep enigma to me, a psychological black hole that warps and absorbs the light of those around her but reflects nothing back. Everyone who knows her has an opinion about what is in there, but I suspect these opinions are often more revealing of people’s wishes and fears than of Huang’s actual nature. In the end, I cannot say who the real Huang is: perpetrator or victim, good or bad, pathetic or triumphant, generous or selfish. Or all of these things at once. But whatever else she may or may not be, Huang is unquestionably a brilliant liar.